Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Exhibit in Review: Cleopatra—The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt

Credit: The Franklin Institute
Zahi Hawass, Frank Goddio, and the Discovery Channel invite you to step back in time and imagine the world of Cleopatra, which has largely been lost underwater. Cleopatra's story is filled with intrigue, romance, and a fair amount of danger, but is it worth the  admission price of the exhibit?

In short, no. The artifacts are spectacular, but the exhibit itself is poorly designed, lacking any real flow to match the narration of the self-guided tour offered to visitors.

The exhibit begins with a short introductory film that seems ready to be aired on Discovery. It definitely piqued the viewers' interest—a few of the younger audience members were enrapt as the narrator reviewed what little we know of this legendary woman. A fair portion of the four minute film is spent discussing the destruction of Alexandria, which helps set the stage for the different stages of the exhibit.

The film concludes somewhat dramatically, with the screen rising to reveal the statue of a Ptolemaic queen, who visitors are supposed to liken to Cleopatra. The audience files past her into a simulated underwater realm where archaeological remnants are strewn about in a bed of sand. The setting is supposed to place you alongside Goddio as he explores submerged cities that may hide clues about Cleopatra. What was a wonderful opportunity to follow up on the drama created by the film's conclusion falls short as visitors move quickly through this space with no appreciation for the natural forces that brought about Alexandria's ruins.

Following the movie, the exhibit is broken into seven sections, which cover the perceived nature of daily life based on the artifacts that have been uncovered. This is where things start to get a little disjointed. As in many other self-guided tours, the exhibit is marked by numbers indicating when the audio tool should be used. The problem is that there is no clear marker indicating how to move throughout the space. Add a lingering crowd to the mix, and visitors are drifting aimlessly and the story that the exhibit is meant to tell is lost—you'll easily find yourself standing at Number 4 on the tour without having passed 2 or 3. Not that the narrative has much to add. Meant to be the "voice of Cleopatra," the audio component is superficial and adds little to the context of the experience. "Cleopatra" is supposed to speak to visitors and guide them through her life, but instead she comes across as robotic and distant. She talks of renaming her children in the same bored tone as she uses to describe temple activities.

Quite possibly, around the "Alexandria" section of the exhibit, you may start to experience deja vu—it starts to feel a bit recycled as you examine yet another set of coins recovered from the deep. (They were exciting to behold the first time, but by the third time the details were honestly lost on me.) The exhibit culminates with a look at popular media portrayals of Cleopatra, including photographs and a video clip. There's no discussion of the sensationalized and sexualized depiction of this woman in the media and how we've come to see her this way. It was a really flat ending to the entire experience.

Was any part of the exhibit worth it? Yes—there's a scroll allegedly written in her own hand. It invokes the viewer's imagination and is an engaging artifact. There were also several temple sanctums (for lack of a better word) where idols would have been housed. The workmanship on them is incredible. Otherwise the exhibit was poorly executed and not worth the price of admission. Though, hopefully, a portion of the proceeds will go to the Franklin Institute because the facility overall shows signs of sorely needing funding.

Out of five pyramids, I'd give this a two. Skip it—and wait for the Doscovery Channel feature.

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